ON LIBRARIES: Understanding and Using Culture

What is your school’s culture?  What is your library’s culture? Both affect how you do your job, how you present yourself, and whether you are regarded as a leader. I blogged on this topic back in January, but a recent article made me want to revisit the topic.

Readers may recall I worked in two districts with dramatically different cultures. The first voted down twenty budgets in the twenty-two years I was there. The second district passed every budget in the nine years I was there.  This district prided itself on its history and its ability and willingness to support the school system. They viewed themselves as a lighthouse district.  Indeed, pride along with diversity are still present on the district’s home page, mission, and superintendent’s vision.

Knowing the culture of the two districts affected how I proposed my annual budget requests and projects. At the first school, everything was couched in terms of how my request(s) would be cost-saving. (Every dollar spent in the library affects all students.)  I overheard a business teacher speaking to her department chair saying, “We don’t need new textbooks as long as Hilda’s library is up-to-date.” In the second school, I promoted my requests and ideas as a means of moving the school forward. In preparatory discussions with administrators, I would compare what I was seeking with what was happening in other leading school districts and libraries. I could be asking for the same thing in each school, but I framed it differently to fit the culture.

So if you’re (still) struggling with working within your school’s culture, you may appreciate the idea s from an article in Harvard Business Review where John Coleman discusses the Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture. Although he is addressing the business world much of what he says relates or is adaptable to education and the school library.

Coleman starts with Vision. He states, “A great culture starts with a vision or mission statement.” I have been promoting this for years. Your Vision and/or Mission must guide every decision you make. It sets the tone for everything.  Don’t have one yet?  Get started.  You won’t be able to successfully advocate for your program without it. Also, make sure you know the vision for your school or school district. The more in line you can be, the easier your advocacy.

Next is Values.  According to Coleman, “A company’s values are the core of its culture.” This ties into your Philosophy which probably includes a statement that the library “is a safe, welcoming environment for all.”.  We also have our Common Beliefs as given in the National School Library Standards. As librarians, we have our ALA Bill of Rights and the ALA Code of Ethics.  To enhance your understanding, you might also reflect on your school’s and district’s values – both stated and unstated

Third is Practices. “Values are of little importance unless they are enshrined in a company’s practices.” How many times have we heard administrators say, “The library is the heart of the school,” only to see them eliminate the budget, close the library for numerous occasions, and in other ways indicate the statement is a platitude, not a reality. (This speaks to those unstated values). You can support this by truly doing all you can to carry out your Vision/Mission and Values. If this is something you are struggling with, how can you change this or get help?

People is (are?) fourth. As Coleman says, “No company can build a coherent culture without people who either share its core values or possess the willingness and ability to embrace those values.” These “people” are your advocates.  Are there teachers who share your values and value the library? What about your administrator? Any outside volunteers? This is why you need to communicate your Vision – and your Values.  And are you showing you value the contributions of those around you? If you need support on this, go to the National School Library Standards portal, clicking on Administrators or Educators to get the appropriate resources.

The fifth contributor to an institution’s culture is Narrative. This is where the power of emotions comes in.  You need to tell your library’s story and embed it in the awareness of your stakeholders. Use emotional content and visuals to reach your audience. Where have you seen your program making a noticeable difference in the lives of students? Why is it not only valuable but indispensable? Have students worked on college applications at the library? Try to get pictures when they’re accepted. Have students put something they’ve learned in the library into action (such as a community garden)? Make sure to show the connection – and the excitement. Do quarterly reports highlighting student learning using various tech resources such as Canva, Piktochart or your favorite site. Get your narrative out into the community with social media.

Finally, there is Place.  The look of your facility is the first thing greeting all who enter.  What message is it sending? Is it aligned with your Vision and Values or is there a disconnect? I’ve written about a list of rules being the first thing people see and how that can be a barrier. Where is the visual excitement of your space?

You create the culture for your library.  By taking stock of how yours measures up to these six components, you can make it a strong statement of who, what, and why you are.  Also, match these six to identify your school culture.  How well is the library culture aligned with the school culture? Again, is there a disconnect?  If so, develop a strategic advocacy plan to make inroads on the school culture so that it will embrace the value of the school library and make certain you are using your awareness of the culture to support your initiatives.  A challenging culture doesn’t mean you won’t get what you need. It means you’ll have to look for or develop new ways to success.

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ON LIBRARIES – Culture Conscious

How would you describe your school’s culture?  If you have never thought about it, now’s the time to start.  The school (and district) culture influence everything from your budget requests to the willingness of teachers to collaborate with you and administrators to support you.

I have written in the past of two very different cultures in districts where I worked.  At the first, education was regarded as being like medicine.  You don’t like it, but you have to take it.  The twenty budgets that were defeated in the twenty-two years I was there was an obvious indicator.  The district depended heavily on teachers’ commitment to helping their students since there was never an extra payment or support for what they did.  I knew one world language teacher who taught four different sections including having an AP Spanish class within Spanish IV.

The other district saw itself as a leader in education with a diverse, multi-cultural student population.  The culture reflected pride in what they were doing and bringing to students and, by extension, the community. The Wall of Fame saluted graduates who had made major contributions.  It included authors, government officials, and those in noted businesses

While these districts could not be more dissimilar, I could get funding for projects in either place by working with the culture.  In the first district, I always presented my requests by stressing how this would save money in the long run, using as a theme, “the library gives you the biggest bang for your buck.”  I even had one teacher tell her department chair they didn’t need new textbooks, “as long as Hilda’s library was up-to-date.”

In the second district, my proposals were always tied in some way to why it would keep us in the forefront of education. Knowing how strongly the administrators felt about moving to block scheduling, I put in a request for extra funding to purchase support material for the faculty.  I noted that many teachers were opposed to the change because they couldn’t see how they were to get through their curriculum within the structure of a longer period and alternating semesters, (e.g. Spanish I in the fall of 9th grade and Spanish II in the fall of 10th grade).  The extra resources I was proposing would give them the information they needed to continue to be great teachers and show that the district was there to support them.

On a daily basis, the school culture affects you differently.  My two districts had radically diverse cultures, both had teachers strongly committed to serving the students.  To have teachers collaborate with me, I had to convince them that what I taught would help their students be more successful. The English teachers in one district relied on me to teach each grade the research process for term papers because it ensured every student had received the same background information and experience.

I had a co-librarian in one district who teachers rightly felt didn’t like the students.  When they brought their classes to the library, if I was already scheduled to work with another class, they taught their students themselves.  That situation is an example of how we can also negatively affect the culture around us.

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In an article primarily directed towards administrators on “5 Ways to Impact School Culture,” Dr. Amy Fast offers suggestions that work well for school librarians.  The first is “Assume Best Intent.”  So, if you send a teacher a resource for his/her students and there is no response, don’t assume you are being ignored “because the teachers don’t appreciate what I do.”  Things get lost in cyberspace.  Either send it again with a message saying, “I don’t know if you received this when I sent it out,” or speak to the teacher in person, which is probably best, and find out what the situation really is.

Her second recommendation is, “Surround Yourself with Greatness,” because “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  That can be a scary thought.  Work hard to connect and get into relationship with the teachers who are recognized as “stars.”  As they create units with you, the others will follow, and your school library culture will thrive.

“Elicit Feedback” is her third way. I discussed this in my blog on “The Power and Importance of Feedback.” The fourth idea is to “Know Your Sphere of Influence.” Too often we think all the power – and leadership—comes from a title.  You can, in fact, lead from the middle- or the bottom.  In my Weight Watcher program, I have been keeping up enthusiasm which was crushed when the leader we adored was fired. I lead from my seat – and it is recognized by the other members.

Dr. Fast’s final suggestion is “Make Your WHY Transparent.”  You know why you became a school librarian.  You know why you love your job (most days). Make sure you are communicating that in your words and your actions.  It will also keep you from focusing on the negatives that are a part of any job.

If you are struggling to get teachers to work with you or you want your administrators to recognize your value, review the ways you interact with school culture and see which ones might help you improve your school library culture.